From a Forest to a Djembe Drum

Drum production in Ghana

It is Sunday afternoon in Okroase (Eastern Region of Ghana) and from far you can hear the monotonous sound of the asinkuma and soso hitting a wood log. Okroase is the center of drum body production in Ghana nowadays. 10 years ago, this location - in middle of the vast Forest area around Asamankese, Akim-Oda and Kade (all Eastern Region) - had a rather small population of carvers, who were just producing morters and sticks, which are wooden cooking utensils in Ghanaian households, in addition to stools.
Some 1000 carvers in the area are now gainfully employed into the drum-making business for Export. This prevented the youth to drift to the nearby city of Accra, where they can only look for job opportunities. Drum making brought the work to their rural doorstep, and with it came development, such as transport and electricity, as well as improved personal living conditions and the end of the crippling migration to Accra. But this condition is not permanent: Within the next 20 years the wood resources at the area are exhausted (if depletion and production continue to be same than now) and the bulk of producers will look for better location closer to the raw material source. An estimated export volume of 100,000 drums a year or more contribute to a fast depletion of virgin forests in the area.

In respect of this problem, Getrade-FPS has - since 1992 - started afforestation, with special carving trees in Konkonuru, near Aburi.

There are special loggers and chainsaw operators, who go to the bush to fell the trees, cut the round log pieces with chainsaws and transport them to the production villages. The Ghana Forestry department controls these operations of late as chainsaw operators need licenses and their output is registered. For the Djembe drum body, a piece of Tweneboa is used by the body - carver. This round log is first debarked by a tool called ASINKUMA (cutlass) and the ASINSO (big axe). With the SOSO (a long stick where a round gouge is attached) the holes are chopped out from down and up, leaving the inside rather rough. To make the small hole inside the soso is eating up and down. To obtain the form outside on the body the cutlass is used again to form the middle of the body. For the demarcation of the round top body the ASINSO or big axe is used to make the round parts. After the inside is chopped out, the form is sized and the height is fixed the smoothening starts: Inside a small gouge is taking away sharp ends, and on the surface the stroke-shape is chopping fine spans away. The under and the top are again straightened with the mechanical or motor chainsaw. The wood that is cut from the drum will not be a waste, but will be used in cooking, or even is sold as firewood. Now the raw body can leave Okoroase to further production centers. These are mainly Aburi in the Akwapim ranges of the Eastern Region in Ghana or individual workshops located in Ghana's capital Accra. Here the drum builder is doing his work, and his is the most work, and he is the actual drum producer, whose product the drum is.

He first has to see the body for its quality: " Small cracks are repaired (patched), " Holes in the wood are filled with wood glue (poti) and " Pores are sealed, if necessary. " Big cracks from down the drum should however not been further worked on, as they can open more. These drum bodies are rejected. " Cracks from the top of the drum however do not necessarily make the drum a waste. With a good sealing and sandpapering, these will not open more and are also not visible on the drum. " Straightening of the down and " Rounding of the top edges are the next quality related steps. " A final sandpapering completes the raw body for drum making.

Now the decoration of the drum becomes the major part of the work: " Carved Designs, done with a V-gouge and a chisel have to beautify the raw body. This can be geometrical forms or the so-called Adinkra signs, symbols of Ghanaian tradition. " Some bodies are decorated with cloth material on their round part, which is cut to size and carefully nailed on the drum. " Some designs are blackened after they have been carved. This is done by applying potassium liquid with a toothbrush on the deep carved parts, let it dry, and the remove the over standing black with the sproke-shave tool, and than sandpaper again. " Even the whole body can be blackened with Potassium, sandpapered properly and shined a lot, so that a glossy, shiny black surface is decorated with a few strokes of v-gouge carving, which then come out white or cream, the color of the wood. " Other intricate designs can be applied to a drum body: Pieces of Brass, tin, aluminum or metal sheets, which themselves are incised can be put on the drums. These again can be polished, made antique, or is blackened. The variety is endless.

From here other technicians start their work: " The welder cuts Iron Rods of 1/4' to size the three rings of the Djembe; he bends it and welds it to a ring onto the drum. But before the rusty iron rod is covered with small pieces of cloth. " On this rings, which are covered with a piece of cloth to avoid rubbing, the drum tuner fixes his strings. Drum tuning and the arranging of the knots and the strings is the most sensitive part for the good finish of the drum. Here plenty techniques, secrets and expertise exist and it seems only Musicians and Professional drummers can describe the complicated process of it all. " The drum tuner then also has to fix the leather - a goatskin normally, not chemically treated and not bleached off their hairs -. It is soaked in water for smoothening before fixed around the two top rings and cut and then the hair removed with a shaving blade. " When it is dry fastening and tightening with the strings can be done.

Now the drum is ready for final touches: " Applying of polish (red or neutral). " Two round of shining-polishing and shining again make the smooth surface if wanted. " Cutting of hair and sandpapering the skin. " And a final quality control is done before the drum is being exported.

In this long process a drum can be estimated a total man/hour production time of about 6 to 10 hours, depending on the Design. Left alone with cost of materials of about 30 % to 45 % of the whole drum price (that also depends on the various materials, which can be better, and so more expensive), labor and overhead cost for a drum in the range of about 10000-12000 Cedis per man/hour (statistical value 2003) can be achieved. This forms a relative good income comparatively to the government minimum wage of about 5000 Cedis a day (2001). However the total process of drum making should be properly evaluated, as it deals with scarce resources, employs a large labour force and has been growing into a huge Industry over the past ten years.